Chronicle of a Disappearance (Suleiman, 1996) is one of the most unusual films that I’ve ever watched. Normally I leave even the most abstract films with some sense of what happened, but when this one finished, I had no idea what I’d just watched.
I chose this film, because it relates to my research into national identity in national cinema by “[taking] a witty and ironic, yet heartfelt, look at how Israel’s Arab population has lost its national identity (Young, 1996)”. It also connects to the thread of the merging of documentary and fiction in middle eastern cinema by “blurring the line between documentary and fiction, the theater of repressed violence and the gentle comedy of everyday life (Young, 1996)”.
Chronicle of a Disappearance is split into two parts, the first set in rural Nazareth and the second in politicised Jerusalem. The first segment is very much shot in a documentary style. There’s little music (what we do hear is diegetic) and the camera is static. Suleiman frequently has his subjects address the camera directly, breaking the fourth wall and creating a strong sense of realism. When he doesn’t have his subjects speak to the audience, they’re filmed remotely, from a distance, often shot through doors. This gives a sense of observational photography, of almost spying on these subjects, which adds to the documentary aesthetic. Even the title suggests a desire to record events as they are, to create a “chronicle”.
But Suleiman doesn’t explain his realism with any kind of narration. The audience is left to wonder who are these people? Are they actors or not? And how does each scene connect to the others? It seems that Suleiman is trying to create a sense of place; a sense of what it means to be Palestinian in this particular space and time. He says that for him the film is a “search of what it means to be Palestinian (Indiewire, 1997)”.
One of Suleiman’s notable themes seems to be extremes of emotion. In the first, Nazareth based, part of the film two conversations feature prominently, one between a group of women and another between a group of men. Both are about how much they hate one particular person (or family) and love another. This extreme contrast between love and hate, good and bad, is perhaps a reflection of the unyielding views of Palestinians and Israelis about their conflict; each sees themselves as unequivocally right and the other as certainly wrong.
Just as the audience settles into this realistic style, Suleiman hints that all is not as it seems, cutting to images of a man (who turns out to be the director himself) clicking through a slideshow of stills taken from the footage that he’s already presented to us. This meta sequence, of the director within his own film, sets the tone for the second half of the film, titled “Part II – Jerusalem: A Political Diary (Suleiman, 1996)”.
As Suleiman moves into this second section of the film, he highlights the contrast between the locations of Nazareth and Jerusalem by moving from realism to surrealism. Static cameras begin to move, scenes are highly edited and the director himself appears as a character observing the life of his subjects, particularly that of an Arab woman called Aden.
Suleiman cuts between his story and Aden’s in a way that leaves the audience wondering who belongs in which story, and if they are in fact the same person:
Throughout the second half of the film, the narrative shifts between Suleiman’s perspective and that of Adan’s. These overlapping senses of identity underscore the lack of unification amongst the Palestinians in Jerusalem and expose the contradictions inherent in shared beliefs and values. (Campbell, 2007)
And he further disrupts the narrative by adding a scene of himself presenting this very film, Chronicle of a Disappearance, to a waiting group of journalists. In her essay, Chronicle of a Disappearance: The Scared and The Mundane , Lindsey Campbell writes of this scene:
This is both disruptive to the narrative, blending reality and fiction, and breaks from the pattern of repetition. He is asked to approach the podium to speak about the film. What transpires is one long undisturbed take, during which Suleiman adjusts the microphone and the soundman attempts to fix the redundant feedback which disables Suleiman from speaking. (Campbell, 2007)
Campbell’s essay is a fascinating read, and explains the final sequences of the film much better than I could. Suffice to say that Suleiman uses the fragmented narrative and the interplay between Aden, himself and his film to subvert the audience’s expectations of Palestine and its marginalised people. And he goes further, more openly questioning the stereotype of Arab suicide bombers by having Aden appear to wire herself up as one, only to be revealed to be carrying nothing more than fireworks by bemused Israeli police. “Through the exquisite use of rupture, fractured non-linearity, repetition, irony, and wry humor, Elia Suleiman exposes the fractured Palestinian identity: the lack of cohesive unity, the denied, the negated and the absurd (Campbell, 2007)”.
Abdel-Malek, K., (2005), The Rhetoric of Violence: Arab-Jewish Encounters in Contemporary Palestinian Literature and Film, New York: Palgrave MacMillan
Campbell, L., (2007), Chronicle of a Disappearance: The Scared and The Mundane [online], Off Screen, 11 (5), Available from: http://offscreen.com/view/chronicle_of_a_disappearance [Accessed on 12 August 2016]
Indiewire, (1997), Seven Questions For Elia Suleiman, Director Of Chronicle Of A Disappearance [online], Indiewire, Available from: http://www.indiewire.com/article/seven_questions_for_elia_suleiman_director_of_chronicle_of_a_disappearance [Accessed on 12 August 2016]
Khalidi, R., (1996), Contrasting Narratives of Palestinian Identity in Patricia Yaeger’s (ed) The Geography of Identity, Ann Arbour: University of Michigan Press, pp. 187-222.
Suleiman, E., (1996), Chronicle of a Disappearance, Centre National de la Cinématographie (CNC)
Suleiman, E., (2000), A Cinema of Nowhere: An Interview with Elia Suleiman, Journal of Palestine Studies, 29 (2), pp. 95-101
Young, D., (1996), Review: ‘Chronicle of a Disappearance’ [online], Variety, Available from: http://variety.com/1996/film/reviews/chronicle-of-a-disappearance-1200446739/ [Accessed on 12 August 2016]